By Dan Forbush with Mirabelle Cohen and Miranda Sullivan
For Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, two back-to-back unanimous votes by the City Council last November were triumphs she had envisioned for more than 20 years.
The first was to approve the conservation easement that would ensure that the Pitney Farm would be preserved in perpetuity for “agricultural, forestry, wildlife habitat, water resource protection, educational and other open space purposes.”
Minutes later, the Council voted to withdraw $1.13 million from the City’s Open Space Bond Fund to purchase the property’s development rights, thereby enabling a new non-profit organization, Pitney Meadows Community Farm, Inc., to acquire the property from William, Judith and Kathy Pitney.
Together, these actions by the council paved the way for the formal closing and celebration that took place four weeks later on a frigid day at the farm in mid-December.
“It was like a dream come true for me,” she says.
Yepsen’s Pitney Farm story began in the 1980s at a time when her reputation as a Skidmore College fundraiser was earning her invitations to serve on numerous nonprofit boards, including the nascent Saratoga Springs Open Space Project. Through that affiliation, she became an advocate for open-space preservation and a supporter of Saratoga Springs’ first Open Space Plan, adopted by the City Council in 1994. That plan included a commitment to preserve the “agricultural lands on West Avenue,” which everyone understood as meaning the Pitney Farm.
Yepsen’s fundraising talent broadened over time into an interest in organizational development, which she furthered in her work with such organizations as the Open Space Project and the Land Trust of Saratoga County, which merged in 2003 as Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land and Nature).
In 2001, Yepsen established her own nonprofit consulting firm, Coltivare, and began working in variety of capacities with such local organizations as the Lake George Land Conservancy, Saratoga Hospital Foundation, Lake George Opera Company, the Saratoga Independent School.
In 2004, she recalls, Saratoga Springs Mayor Ken Klotz noticed the number of boards and committees on which she was serving, and asked: “Wouldn’t you like to consolidate it all in an elected official role?’”
“That made sense to me,” Yepsen says. In 2005 she ran for what would be the first of four terms as county supervisor. In 2009, she teamed with Amy Stock, an environmental writer and educator, in launching Sustainable Saratoga as a citizen-driven, policy-oriented organization aimed at consolidating a range of green-oriented initiatives in a more potent, unified force.
Throughout her tenure as a supervisor and her work with Sustainable Saratoga, Yepsen recalls, “The Pitney Farm was on our radar. It kept coming up. We were all thinking: ‘We should be looking at some way to preserve this.” Yepsen made several inquiries, as did Saratoga PLAN, but the answer from the Pitney family’s attorney was always the same: “Sorry. We’re not interested in selling.”
Yepsen gave up on the idea until she received a call from two Saratoga PLAN representatives shortly after beginning her first term as mayor. “They said, ‘We think we might have the opportunity to acquire the Pitney Farm. Might City funding be available?’ As mayor, I could now say, ‘Yes, I think we should use the City’s bonding authority to buy the development rights.’ And all the pieces of the puzzle started to be put in place.’”
Yepsen’s first steps were to consult with the Open Space Advisory Committee, which she had reactivated in 2014, and to put together a team to work on the conservation easement, a process for which her experience with Saratoga PLAN had prepared her well. The goal from the outset was to establish an “educational farm hub to support agriculture and sustainable practices,” she says.
With Pitney Meadows Community Farm, Inc. now in possession of the property, “I see an open, natural space where many young families are growing much of their own food and where schools, the YMCA, and private organizations teaching a curriculum in sustainable agriculture,” Yepsen says. “I see farmers from across the nation coming together to learn, share, and further farming healthy techniques, and events for all to enjoy hosted on site to promote healthy eating, cooking, caring of our earth, and life style.”
After 12 years in public service, Yepsen has decided it’s time for her to “move up and move on” toward “making something big happen that has even greater impact” than her achievements as mayor. But among her top priorities prior to stepping down on December 31st are working with the Open Space Advisory Committee toward updating the City’s Open Space Plan and the preparation of a referendum – possibly in 2018 – for a new Open Space Bond Fund she thinks might need to be as high as $10 million, considering the rapid escalation of property values in the city.
“There’s open space everywhere we need to be prepared to preserve,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a little pocket park in the middle of town or a substantial property adjoining our City-owned park on Saratoga Lake. We need to be able to opportunistically jump on such opportunities as they arise. We also need to steward the properties we’ve already purchased.”